I’m going to be moving soon. I’ve been lucky to live for the past few years in a city which has a deep and diverse pool of gaming communities, with enough space in the ecosystem for the weird little niches that generally contain the stuff I really care about, and for there to be new niches to dip my toes into. That has included an active storygaming community, which has been amazing.
I’m moving to a smaller city with a much smaller tech sector, and a correspondingly smaller Nerd Arts community. From what I can make out, the regular RPG scene there comprises D&D, Pathfinder and maybe a little White Wolf LARP. I’ve got an established online group, playing through G+ hangouts, and they’re all lovely people and we have a good time. But it’s not the same as in-person games: a little more work, a good deal less immediacy. So I’ve been thinking long and inconclusively about how feasible it’ll be to set up a local pickup storygames group – and that inevitably means thinking about explaining storygames, which in turn means having an idea about what they are.
The usual potted version is “tabletop role-playing games with a heavy emphasis on story.” But that’s not hugely helpful, not least because everyone seems to have a different idea of what story means. In accepting the XYZZY Award for Best Story, Jon Ingold said that he didn’t really consider 80 Days to be a game that had a story. S. John Ross says “I don’t game for story“. I suspect that John and Jon understand ‘story’ in games as something more specific than I do – which, regardless of what the exact differences are (this is a rabbit-hole* of a subject, too extensive for this margin) suggests that just saying ‘games which place a priority on story’ doesn’t do a good job of unpacking the term, and may actively mislead.
(My other major gaming interest, interactive fiction, has a very similar naming problem – indeed, ‘interactive fiction’ and ‘story game’ become effectively equivalent if you take the maximalist, literal-meaning-of-the-words position. I’ve seen a good number of people using ‘story games’ to mean narrative-focused videogames, which makes me long for more usable proper nouns, rather than this morass of slippery semi-definitions.)
Anyway. For purposes here, storygames are a subset of tabletop role-playing games. Sure, I know splitters, people who prefer to think of storygames and RPGs as separate, albeit adjacent categories – unsurprisingly, these are usually people who enjoy one but not the other. And there are the lumpers, folks who say that all RPGs are storygames. Here’s the definition on the storygames.com forums, which leans towards genre inclusivity as a community-management principle:
A Story Game… is another word for A Role-Playing Game. Defined as “A game where you play a role“. This covers a lot, A LOT, of ground.
In other contexts, I’ve seen people use the term ‘story game’ as a term for any tabletop role-playing game, used to avoid the cultural baggage or jargony feel that ‘role-playing game’ might convey. It might also avoid confusion with CRPGs – itself a broad and imprecise category, and one which for many players is the only meaning of RPG. All of these are fair enough contextual uses, but they’re not what I (or, I think, my community of use) understand by the term.
A narrower definition is tricky, because there are no absolutely definitive features of storygames – rather, there is a cluster of associated and related concepts that typify them. (I admit to an intellectual preference for this kind of arrangement.) I’m going to focus on what makes them distinctive from traditional tabletop RPGs, rather than how or if they’re different from improv drama, freeform collaborative storytelling (One Word Story), or narrative-y card games (Gloom, Once Upon A Time). None of these features are ubiquitous in storygames; some of them are even unusual, but still more likely to appear in storygames than traditional tabletop.
- Weakened, atomised and distributed GM authority. Many storygames have no games master, with the players sharing the GM’s traditional roles, either equally or with divided powers. In games where there is a GM, their responsibilities and powers are often reduced; some games tamper with the GM power imbalance by reifying a GM-like role as a character with their own interests (My Life with Master, My Daughter the Queen of France, Serpent’s Tooth, Dog Eat Dog). If there’s a GM-like role, it’s often renamed to something less authoritarian-sounding.
- An emphasis on collaborative creativity throughout play. The players of a storygame can’t (or shouldn’t) be mostly reactive; they have to be inventive. Trad RPG involves a lot more separate, pre-game creativity, with the GM designing worlds and scenarios, and the players designing their characters. In storygames, the most important, fun creative activity is the stuff you do together, during play sessions. They’re reliant on players creatively building on other players’ creative contributions.
- Low level of required preparation. All tabletop RPGs are to some extent extemporaneous, but in storygames this is much more prominent. Many storygames require no advance preparation beyond knowing the rules. Those which do have prep are likely to keep it relatively light, leaving lots of room for improvisation at the table. (This is the biggest difference between storygames and theatre LARP).
- No Myth. (See Dan Shiovitz’s discussion of the term here.) Nothing is established for sure about the world, the characters or the plot until it’s been introduced during role-play itself; the action adapts to whatever the players are focused on. (If you had plans to introduce Amazing Backstory Thing, you’d better do it soon, because someone else might do something that renders it moot.) Making it up as you go along is encouraged: ‘play to find out.’
- Explicit narrative structure, particularly with regard to pacing. At the small scale, storygames are likely to organise the action into discrete scenes, often with specific procedures for setting up a scene and ending it. At the larger scale, many storygames make their narrative arc mechanically explicit: in Polaris the society will always fall. The arc of a Fiasco game generally tracks an ill-advised scheme that goes horribly wrong. Most storygames are conscious attempts to define a genre with its own narrative rules. (Trad storygames also have standard narrative structures: the cycle between dungeon action and town rebuilding, the long arc of growing character power leading towards a big confrontation and eucatastrophe.)
- Player success detached from player-character success. In a traditional RPG, players are advocates for their character; they are expected to want and work towards in-character success (or, to put it another way, there’s motivational alignment: the player and PC want the same things). In a storygame, you often knowingly act against your character’s best interests for the sake of narrative. Sometimes this is because you’re playing a role (‘I don’t think this is a good idea, but my character doesn’t know that’); sometimes it’s for dramatic reasons (‘Brock could react a lot of different ways here, but it’s more interesting if he blames Laura’) or because you have powers that the player-character doesn’t (‘Amy awakes to a sky blackened by locust swarms’). Most storygames only work if the players buy into this assumption; even in games where you’re mechanically competing (Shooting the Moon) there is usually a strong assumption that the players will treat tactics lightly rather than focusing on optimal use of systems.
- Non-immersionist (or, in IF terms, not aiming at maximal mimesis). The player does typically represent and inhabit the subjective viewpoint of a single primary character – but they also need to work from the perspective of an author or a director.
- Less individual ownership of PCs. Some storygames give players control over a single character only temporarily (Remember Tomorrow); some eliminate or dramatically reduce persistent characters (The Quiet Year, Microscope).
- Knowledge separation between player and PC; not much emphasis on hidden information. In many storygames, players routinely share out-of-character information – for instance, talking about their PC’s motives even when nobody (perhaps not even the PC) could really know about them. Some games do faux-hidden information – when you win narration in InSpectres or Gaze Into the Abyss in Monsterhearts you discover something new, but that new thing might very well be made up on the spot.
- PC – PC conflict. Traditional RPGs typically assume that most of the game will involve the player-characters working together as a unit to overcome external threats; players might disagree about objectives or squabble over the loot, but most of their efforts are expected to be cooperative. In storygames the most significant conflicts are often between players.
- Simple rules. Usually. Mostly. Not as important as the next item:
- Little emphasis on simulationist mechanics. Rules are typically not intended to closely simulate or enforce a realistic model of the world. In particular, the rules are less likely to be concerned with the exact extent of the power of player characters, or with the reasonable relative difficulty of things they might do – both central concerns in trad RPG. Rather, the rules are a framework to establish narrative principles. (In Dogs in the Vineyard, having a lot of dice for a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationship is strong, or even that the character considers it important – it means that the player thinks it’s interesting and wants it to be significant to their character’s story.)
- No dice, or dice in a greatly reduced role. Where storygames do use dice, they are much more likely to use d6 only. When dice appear, they’re often still used for ‘make a good roll to have your character succeed,’ but conflicts requiring mechanical resolution are typically only used when they’re dramatically interesting. Early storygame Primetime Adventures recommends that you only resolve conflicts mechanically if either result would be equally interesting. This is a bit difficult to strictly accomplish in practice, but a lot of storygames are working in the same ballpark. In many storygames the excitement of unexpected results comes from the inventiveness of other players, not from mechanical randomness.
- Low focus on combat. Many storygames have no specialised rules for violence at all; violence is handled like any other conflict or event or whatever. Others do, but they tend to consider it in terms of dramatic effect and story consequences rather than tactics and simulation.
- Failure-driven narrative. In a high proportion of storygames, failure at some scale is central to the generation of plot. Sometimes this means the inevitable death of most of the characters (Geiger Counter, Final Girl, Carolina Death Crawl), or the collapse of a whole society (Polaris, Downfall). Sometimes it’s more open-ended, and just means that the central engine of plot is player characters fucking up (Monsterhearts, Fiasco). Sometimes the mechanics are framed such that even mechanical success is likely to entail failure at a more important level (Shooting the Moon, Monsterhearts).
- No power curve. In most trad RPG, player characters progress steadily, gaining better skills, stats and resources and becoming more powerful. In storygames this is typically absent or less important; character development is often expressed mechanically, but it’s unlikely to be in terms of steadily increasing power.
- A focus on political and social themes. Common themes include culture, community, ethics. Many storygames are focused on specific issues of progressive politics: Dog Eat Dog with colonialism, Dream Askew with queerness, Night Witches with feminism. Several focus on the internal conflicts and power-struggles of communities (Downfall, Kingdom, The Quiet Year); others are less specific but are always about some social issue (Shock).
A focus on the interpersonal. In Fiasco characters are created from their connections to one another; they exist as relationships before they exist as individuals. In Shooting the Moon the Suitors are created as reflections of the Beloved’s traits. In Hillfolk the most important motivations of the PCs can only be satisfied by other PCs. In Downfall the collapse of society is expressed and reflected through relationships. Many storygames focus on conflict and tension between PCs, rather than PCs united against external challenges.
- A focus on the intrapersonal. Dreaming Crucible and Penny For My Thoughts are both about the internal lives of deeply troubled people. In other games, players are encouraged to talk about character motivations and thoughts (even, or especially, if these would be hidden from other characters). ‘Games about feelings.’
A heavy emphasis on player safety. Storygames venture into potentially traumatic or triggery material relatively often, and storygames and their communities tend to have a corresponding emphasis on protecting players – generally through vocabularies of consent, trust, and the right to establish boundaries. (We are perhaps a little smug about the inevitable parallels this draws to kinky sex.) Rather than thinking about boundary-negotiation as forbidding content, the stress is usually that it makes a greater range of content possible.
- Designed for single-session play. Some storygames enforce this (Fiasco); others allow multi-session play but assume single-session as the use case (Microscope).
- Experimental and indie. There’s a lot of stress on trying things that are new and distinctive, whether in content or mechanics. This means that games are very diverse, but sometimes leads to unpolished design and Not Invented Here syndrome.
- Informed by movies and TV, and to a lesser degree theatre; drawing heavily on their language and dramatic conventions.
I should reiterate that there’s no hard delineation here; very few storygames share all of these features. Powered by the Apocalypse games are storygame-ish in some important ways (non-simulationist, heavy interpersonal focus, failure-driven), but they have a GM, resolve conflicts based on dice, play better as campaigns than one-shots, and have some simple leveling which makes characters (somewhat) more capable. Dogs in the Vineyard definitely has some strong storygame-like traits, but in other ways it’s much closer to a traditional RPG: a complex conflict-resolution system with lots of dice, a GM who has to do a good deal of prep work, hidden information, PCs who act as a party. Fate has strong storygame-ish elements, but a lot of people wouldn’t consider it a storygame.
And a lot of this is about community expectations of play as much as it is about mechanical features of the game. You can play D&D as a storygame if you want – but, crucially, D&D isn’t designed to support that style very well.
Naturally, the extent to which storygame players identify certain features as central to storygames will vary depending on which aspects are most important to them. Some people and groups put a very high stress on the GM-less aspect: they argue that an important role of storygames is to create a genuinely inclusive environment, and that for some players the power-imbalance inherent in GMs is a turn-off. For some people, the goal is to largely replicate a traditional action-oriented RPG kind of narrative – they still want to be telling stories about heroic fantasy adventure, they just want to approach that in a low-mechanics narrative way rather than as a simulationist or tactical exercise.
So, hm. What parts of all that do I care about most?
* OK, OK, just one example. Within videogames, a lot of people have the very strong assumption that ‘story’ means something linear and minimally flexible, separate from the core activity of the game and externally imposed upon it. The player’s activity can do little to influence this sense of ‘story’ – it’s the sort of thing experienced mainly through cutscenes and journal entries. So sometimes when I say ‘RPGs with emphasis on story’, people can get the idea that I’m talking about something like Dragonlance – RPG scenarios or campaigns that aim mostly to recapitulate a pre-determined plot and characters. And that’s almost precisely what I don’t mean!